Jack Sharkey. November 13, 2013.

Serious music fans and audiophiles alike all agree on one thing: Dave Brubeck's Take 5 is an essential part of the American musical conversation.

Now that the haughty thesis statement is out of the way, it's also a very interesting recording of a very cool song. Break out a copy and let's listen to the recording strictly from a production point-of-view. My suggestion is a good copy on CD or hi-res file if you don't own the vinyl.

The song was written by saxophonist Paul Desmond in 1959. Brubeck conceived of the odd meters (by Western standards) used on the album after visiting Istanbul, Turkey, and listening to street performers play in 9/8 time. Jazz, to that point, was pretty much a strictly 4/4 affair, so the 5/4 time of Take 5 was indeed unique for the day.

Extra Credit Trivia: What's the only other 5/4 pop song to chart (in the US)? Hint: 1982. (Note: Radiohead, Jethro Tull, Dream Theater and Grateful Dead fans need not send me angry missives, we're talking about the US charts.)   

Double Extra Credit Trivia: Otherwise in 3/4 time, what classic, iconic, rock and roll song intros in 11/4 time? 


Let's take a look at the recording and composition of Brubeck's original recording.

The song was recorded at Columbia Studios on 30th Street in Manhattan on July 1, 1959 and had its live debut later the same month at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village.

The song opens with four measures of Joe Morello's looping, grace note infused rhythm before Brubeck's simple four chord theme comes in. On the fourth measure of Brubeck's piano intro, notice that the chord on the downbeat is missing, either from a mistake or by a strange design of the arrangement. I'd like to think of it as a mistake, as the beauty of live recordings lies squarely in the capturing of the humaness of the players.

It's important to note that the original release would have been in monoaural and that the pan effects were added during later re-mastering, most likely in the early 1960's. Stereo recording was a new technology, and as you'll notice with a lot of recordings throughout the early 1960's, the drums are all squished over on one channel. In this case, Morello resides in the left channel with a wonderfully clean and coherent reverb spreading the drums out to the right, giving the listener a sense of space. The piano is panned hard right.

The reverb was likely added later in a "chamber" at the studio.

Back in the day, recordings were made by close mic'ing the instruments and then running the recording through a "reverb chamber" which was basically a room with hard surfaces designed for ultimate reverberation. A speaker was placed in one end of the room, playing the recording, and a microphone was placed at a point in the room that produced the desired revereration effect.

Six measures after Brubeck's piano enters the scene, Eugene Wright's stand-up bass joins in with a simple, yet stunning three-note line anchors the song for the rest of the journey. On the eighth measure, Paul Desmond's saxophone slides into the melody line that has been covered dozens of times and has set the mood for countless more movies and television shows. The sax is also panned hard right.

At the 0:51 mark you can hear the valves on Desmond's sax rattle slightly.   

Desmond then goes on a nice vamp for about a minute and as he pulls out you can hear Brubeck cue the band that a change is coming by changing the chords slightly.

If you listen carefully during Morello's drum vamp you can hear Wright slapping the bass and the buzz of the strings. A good example of this is at the 2:13 mark and at the 2:34 mark. From 2:34 on, while Morello is working mainly off of the snare drum, you can hear the string slap very clearly with each note.

The snare itself during this section is crisp and clean and is a great example of the use of stereo imaging between the actual drum in the left channel and the reverb in the right channel.

At 3:16, you can hear the band being to dig-in and play with a little more authority. By 3:25 the piano and bass are settled back down, adding tension to the section. With modern comping and compression effects, this kind of subtle interplay and dynamicism between musicians is pretty much non-existant in most studio recordings, and this change in dynamics is one reason audiophiles consider this song an essential part of their collection.

At 4:15 the band all but stops playing, signaling the return of the theme and Desmond's sax. When Desmond returns at 4:21, you can clearly hear him adjusting his mouth position on the reed before settling back into the melody line. 

At the end of the tune, as you stub out your Pall Mall and take one last sip of your gin and tonic before heading out into a Manhattan night lit by shady characters and fog-shrouded street lights, you can hear Morello's ride cymbal decay completely before the track is completed. (Ed. Note: Sorry, the author of this piece got a little carried away with the whole retro-50's cool thing and has been summarily reprimanded.)


I listened on a .WAV file ripped from the original album (on CD) connected to my X300A's with a little help from my M500's when the background office chatter got a little too "present."



Extra Credit Trivia Answer: Face Dances Part 2, by Pete Townshend (All the Best Cowboys have Chinese Eyes)

Double Extra Credit Trivia Answer: Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers Band


The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of KEF or its employees.